A new town hall building for Prague’s Old Town Square?

The Old Town Hall

It’s nearly midday and Prague’s Old Town Square is heaving with people taking photos of the astrological clock, tour groups which you can probably hear behind me, and pizzerias and Czech pubs selling lunchtime fare. But in the midst of all of this hubbub, there is one thing missing, and I’m joined here by Eva Skalická of Prague Town Council, who is here to tell me exactly what that thing is.

So, Eva, can you tell me what used to be here and which isn’t anymore?

“So, we’re at the town hall building on the Old Town Square, which has been here since the 14th century, and to our left there used to be an east wing to the building which was destroyed at the end of the Second World War by the Germans in 1945. So since then, that space has been left undeveloped, and over the years people have wondered more or less constantly what should be built there in its stead.”

But I heard that there were competitions for a new town hall building as far back as 1899, so why were people looking to build a new town hall as far back as that?

“So, the problem of this east wing has been discussed for more than 100 years. Even before it was destroyed by the Germans at the end of the war, this part of the building was viewed none too favourably by Prague’s inhabitants. They didn’t like it because it was designed by the Viennese architects Petr Nobile and Pavel Sprenger when Prague was under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And people didn’t like it because the sheer size of the building dwarfed everything surrounding it on the Old Town Square.

“So in the course of its 100-year existence, the east wing didn’t garner too much support, and in 1899, the first competition was unveiled to find a better design to build over it with. There was no clear winner, and those entries which were praised the most, for political reasons, weren’t built.”

“After the war, when the wing had burnt down, there were a further four competitions to try and find a new town hall. Dozens of architects put in their designs, and these competitions did all have their own winners, but for various reasons – some financial, some political – nothing was ever built here.”

So why do we still have nothing after all of these years of competitions? Why is there still this space on Staroměstské náměstí?

“If we take it from the Second World War, then the next competition was in 1946, in February 1948 though, along came the Communist revolution in Czechoslovakia. And that meant that as soon as the winner of that competition was decided, the political situation changed, and the money that was earmarked for the project was poured into other things instead. The money went into heavy industry, steel production etc.”

The Old Town Hall
“Then the next competition was in 1967, which again had one chosen winner, but then along came August 1968, and Warsaw pact tanks rolled into Prague and occupied the city. The country was occupied and again Prague town hall was not built for political reasons.

“Then 20 years passed and the most recent, the eighth, competition to find a new town hall was unveiled. This took place in 1988. The specifications for the town hall were not very well defined in this competition, and another handicap was again, the political situation changed. 1989 and the Velvet Revolution arrived. So here is hoping that if we launch another competition, it won’t mean yet another political change!”

The Old Town Hall
The astrological clock – one of the last remaining bits of the original town hall – strikes twelve, and Eva Skalická and I make our way into the building to look at the exhibition she has prepared. Before we do though, I asked her what this truncated building served as nowadays if it wasn’t, well, the town hall:

“Now, because this building is missing a wing, all of the administration has been moved to another place. That is all housed in the Magistrát which is on Mariánské náměstí, not far away. That building was constructed in the 1920s. And then there is another more modern building for these things on Jungmannová Street. So where we are here, in the historic town hall, there are only meeting rooms where the mayor can receive visitors, and there are exhibition spaces. This space just serves to represent the town.”

Mrs Skalická has put together an exhibition which shows all of the designs for a new town hall to have been entered into competition over the last 100 years. It was no easy task, as a lot of the original architectural prints were destroyed in the floods which devastated the capital in 2002. She was helped by Zdeněk Lukeš, an architectural historian who is on the jury to decide about a new town hall, should another round of competition be held. I popped over the river to meet him in his office up at Prague Castle:

The Old Town Hall
“I took part in the last competition as an architect in 1986, and we had problems with the massive demands being placed on the building, because Prague Town Council in that communist era wanted to use the new building for a great number of different functions, and it just wasn’t possible, it was very difficult. So, the purpose of the new building is a very important thing to define in advance. And another problem we had was with surveying, because it is necessary to make a perfect archaeological survey of the ground beforehand, because maybe there are some medieval items, and the remnants of gothic houses on that site.”

It isn’t quite at that stage yet, but now it looks like you will be coming at this more from the point of view of a judge, or someone sitting on the jury. What are your specifications for this new town hall?

“In this last competition, people from the town council wanted to build a multi-purpose building full of restaurants and bars, but also representative rooms for the town hall, a big large hall for the city council, viewing terraces, information centres and so on and so on. I think personally that this is all too much for this space. Maybe to have something like the possibility to see the square from the upper levels, or to have something like an information point, but that is all, I think. And maybe in the basement there could be the chance to see the remnants of old structures, or something like an old Prague pub, but nothing more.”

Having spent a lot of time collating, and going through, copies of all of the architectural plans which were previously entered into these rounds of competition, are you happy that none of them were ever built?

“I’m happy that nothing like a copy of the medieval town hall was built over these last decades. But on the other hand, I remember some very sensitive and very nice projects from the older competitions. For me, one of the best projects was designed by Bohumil Hubschmann, a famous Czech architect working in the first half of the last century. He designed a project for the competition in 1938, which combined remnants of the neo-gothic wing with elements of new modern architecture. It is very sensitive, maybe we could say that the architect had a sensitive eye when it came to solving the problem of the town halls new wing.”